This is a noir novel coiled inside the confines of a cozy one, as Lehane explicates layers of family ties and splits. He opens the book with a gruesome shooting inside the actual library. Libraries are one of the last remaining sacred spaces in American culture, and it was with a real sense of outrage that I read this passage. Of course, my eagerness to discover whodunnit was all the greater, which is the mark of a clever writer.
Lehane’s main character, Ray Ambler, works at the enormous New York library as the curator of the crime fiction collection. The man who was killed, James Donnelly, was a writer, stopping by the library to talk to Harry, the director of special collections.
The NYPD is already familiar with Ray and willing to let him nose around and ask questions which, in the tried and true manner of amateur detectives, he is able to do thanks to being on the spot and knowing the people involved.
One of the keys to the story is an elderly crime writer named Nelson Yates. The library has just finagled his papers with the help of a generous and anonymous donor, though Ray’s friend Adele, who works in special collections, drops a hint that leads Ray to the correct source. As Ray and Adele’s friendship begins to blossom (though Ray seems a bit clueless in the romance department), he and Adele become interested in Yates’ long lost daughter, Emily.
At around the same time Adele, a newly minted resident of Manhattan, also takes a liking to an obviously neglected eight year old, Johnny, who shines shoes on the street. She starts making a habit of going by his neighborhood to get her shoes shined, and to look out for him as he disappears into a sketchy looking building.
As she reaches out tentative tendrils of friendship to Johnny and to Ray, Ray goes on investigating the murder of James Donnelly and when another shocking murder happens – this time in a nearby park – he’s hot on the trail of a tangled mess that stretches far back into the dead men’s past, which were apparently not unrelated.
I thought Lehane’s book worked best when he navigated the working of the library, right down (or up?) to the fundraising galas that are part of the job, and at explicating different relationships. Adele’s loss of her mother in the beginning of the novel, her growing attachment to Johnny, and her tentative friendship with Johnny’s mother are all very nicely done.
I found some of the relationships surprising and the denouement heartbreaking. Lehane’s book comes far too close to an examination of psychological darkness to be an actual cozy, despite the library setting. I loved the feel of New York City that the author so beautifully provides, and I was left thinking about several of the characters after I closed the book. What more, really, can a reader ask for?